Books On Books Collection – Jérémie Bennequin

Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard, Dé-composition (2009-2013)

In “Publishing as an Artistic Toolbox“, an exhibition in Vienna in 2018, Antoine Lefebvre displayed several rows of works from La Bibliothèque Fantastique. They were pinned to the wall at the rear of the exhibition space. One work and one only made up the third row from the bottom: Jérémie Bennequin’s hommage to Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés, clearly not singular and missing its “h” and “m”. An exhibition hall is a difficult setting in which to explore a multi-volume work of book art much less answer the questions “Why omage?” and “Why the hyphenation of “décomposition” at the foot of all twenty covers?”

Away from the exhibition and onto Bennequin’s and Lefebvre’s websites, the intrigue only grew with the knowledge that nineteen of those twenty booklets are the results of algorithmically die-driven live performances of erasing the text from Mallarmé’s poem. With several works of homage to Un Coup de Dés in the Books On Books Collection, Bennequin’s omage composed with a single seemed an essential addition.

Dé-composition arrives in a sturdy cardboard box.

Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard, Dé-composition (2009-2013)
Jérémie Bennequin
Cardboard box of 20 livres d’artistes. Each booklet 210 x 150 mm, 28 pages.
Paris: Éditions de La Bibliothèque Fantastique. Photos: Books On Books Collection

Booklet 1.0, which reproduces Mallarmé’s complete poem in its 1897 format, also contains a preface to Bennequin’s multi-volume boxed work. Arguing in the preface that Un Coup de Dés does not abolish chance but rather enhances, elevates, ennobles it, Bennequin poses the questions that initiate his homage. The first is:

“Or, le hasard peut-il abolir Un Coup de Dés?” (So, can chance abolish Un Coup de Dés?)

Bennequin argues that, being an artist of the eraser, he is well-suited to erasing or abolishing Mallarmé’s work, and that rolling the die to direct his act of erasure or abolition is fitting. But then comes his second crucial question:

… comment définir au juste, dans le détail, la cible de chaque coup? (how to define in detail the target of each throw?)

After considering such targets as the letter, the word, the page, the double-page spread, Bennequin settles on the syllable for reasons reflecting Mallarmé’s own theories of poetry and music. Booklet 1.0 represents the starting point, with the next volume 1.1 being the outcome of the end of a live performance on 23 October 2009, which involved Bennequin decomposing Mallarmé’s poem by repeatedly rolling a die then locating, vocalising and erasing the syllable corresponding to the number rolled. This occurred on computer screen in real time. With each of the subsequent eighteen performances, the starting point was the state arrived at in the preceding booklet; 1.2 began with 1.1, 1.3 with 1.2 and so on. By the last performance, very little — but something — of Un Coup de Dés was left. As Bennequin puts it in the last sentence of his preface: “Le hasard jamais n’abolira Un Coup de Dés” (Chance will never abolish Un Coup de Dés).

To answer those awkward questions asked in the exhibition hall: First, the removal of “h” and “m” from hommage to create omage is a visual clue to the work’s destructive/creative process — the die-driven algorithm’s targeting and erasure of phonemes. Second, the isolation of “dé” in the hyphenation of décomposition puns self-reflexively — as book art so often does — on the singular of dés, underscoring the means of Bennequin’s paradoxical decomposition/composition. No matter how this work is displayed or examined, it puts before us a visual constellation of fragments of sound. But, having completed the performances leading to this particular self-reflexive constellation, Bennequin produced another self-reflexive work, an homage within an homage.

Le Hasard n’abolira jamais un Coup de Dés, Omage (2014)

Le Hasard n’abolira jamais un Coup de Dés, Omage (2014)
Jérémie Bennequin
Perfect bound, 325 x 25 mm, 32 pages.
Paris, Éditions Yvon Lambert, Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Le Hasard n’abolira jamais un Coup de Dés replicates in size, colour and appearance the 1914 edition Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard. The main textual difference — the inversion of the title — announces the work as an homage to Mallarmé. But a smaller textual difference — the replacement of Poème with Omage — subtly announces another homage: to Broodthaers’ 1969 homage to Mallarmé. Broodthaers had replaced the word Poème on the 1914 edition’s cover with the word Image.

But it is Le Hasard‘s preface that unequivocally announces its homage to Broodthaers’ homage. Broodthaers had printed all the text of Un Coup de Dés as a “Préface” within a left- and right-justified block of text, and he omitted Mallarmé’s own preface. He then went on to blot out Mallarmé’s verses and their carefully placed typographical rendering with strips of black, shaped with equal care.

Bennequin returns the favour of Broodthaers’ transformative gestures at least twice over. Like Broodthaers’ opening block of text, Bennequin’s includes all the text of Mallarmé’s poem but renders it in phonetic symbols. Even the word Préface is replaced with [pRefas]. The square brackets in Bennequin’s block of text surround the verse units that Broodthaers went on to blot out. In further gestures of lese-majesty to Broodthaers and Mallarmé, Bennequin adds his own explanatory “Note” in place of Mallarmé’s note, the one omitted by Broodthaers. Furthermore, signalling an inversion to come, Bennequin inverts the order of words in Broodthaers’ block of text. The last line of verse in Mallarmé’s poem and in Broodthaers’ block of text is “Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés” (All thought issues a throw of the dice). The first verse in Bennequin’s square of text is [tutpãseemɛœ̃kudəde].

The “inversion to come” lies in the subsequent pages where Bennequin inverts Mallarmé’s words and lets them peek out in white from behind Broodthaers’ black strips. He “un-erases” Broodthaers’ erasure. He uses white on black to re-emphasize the black on white abstraction created by Broodthaers. But that inversion is more than meets the eye.

In his preface to Dé-composition, Bennequin has already shown us an exact inversion of Mallarmé’s title: “Le hasard jamais n’abolira Un Coup de Dés”. Moving jamais to its grammatically correct position, Le Hasard’s inversion of the title is deft artistic lese-majesty. It proclaims the bookwork as allusive to but distinct from Dé-composition and its preface — and distinct from the two targets of homage. As “omage” to Mallarmé, Le Hasard does not abolish Un Coup de Dés; it pulls it back from obliteration albeit by inversion. As “Omage” to Broodthaers, Le Hasard does not abolish the “Image”; it re-establishes the link between the black-imaged “musical” score and the sounds of the text — again albeit by inversion and also phonetic symbols.

Allusive, self-allusive, creative and subversive through inversion — Le Hasard is a new constellation born from that encounter with the twin stars preceding it.

Sur un rêve de John Cage… les rayons roses d’un jour qui se lève colorent doucement un Mo(n)t de poussière… (2020)

Sur un rêve de John Cage… les rayons roses d’un jour qui se lève colorent doucement un Mo(n)t de poussière… (2020)
Jérémie Bennequin
MP4, duration 08:42.

Erasure is Bennequin’s paintbrush, sculpting tool and pen. Before his “omages” to Mallarmé and Broodthaers, Bennequin created “Ommage” (a play on gomme, the French for eraser) by rubbing out the words on each page of the seven volumes of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. From this effort, he issues artist books in limited editions. But nothing goes to waste — not the eraser dust, not the worn erasers, not the activity, not even the sound.

Mo(n)ts et Tom(b)es is the display of small mountains of erased words (ink, paper and rubber) alongside the ruined tomes from which they came. Sur un rêve de John Cage … takes this work to another level. Bennequin has filmed a gradual passage of light over one such small mountain of erased words and timed it to coincide with a performance of Cage’s Dream (1948). In its visual effect, it could also be an homage to Cézanne’s Mont Saint Victoire series or Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral. In its fusion of light, sound, material and thought, it takes us from the whimsy of omage and ommage to meditation.

Sur un rêve de John Cage … is a freely downloadable multimedia work of art.

Le Hasard N’Abolira Jamais Un Coup de Dés (Changes of Music) (2020)

Le Hasard N’Abolira Jamais Un Coup de Dés (Changes of Music) (2020)
Jérémie Bennequin
Film (4 minutes, 33 seconds) recorded on USB drive, embedded in cloth-tape-bound foam boards. H210 x W150 mm. Edition of 6, of which this is #2. Photos: Books on Books Collection, displayed with permission of the artist.

The film records dice being thrown against the open pages of Bennequin’s 2014 omage (see above). Continuing with his technique of homage within homage, Bennequin’s Le Hasard N’Abolira Jamais Un Coup de Dés (Changes of Music) reverses John Cage’s 1951 Music of Changes not only in its title but also in its recorded notes. While the object in the Books on Books Collection fixes the reversal in the film on the USB drive, the reader can view and listen to it here and compare the recording with Cage’s original here.

Further Reading

Bennequin, Jérémie. “Lecture”. Leeds Beckett University, 25 February 2016. Accessed 10 April 2020.

Briers, David. “Reading as Art”, Art Monthly, October 2016, pp. 25-26.

Mœglin-Delcroix, Anne. “De l’appropriation artistique d’œuvres littéraires dans le livre d’artiste: entre destruction et incorporation” in Annette Gilbert (ed.), Wiederaufgelegt. Zur Appropriation von Texten und Büchern in Büchern (Bielefeld : transcript, 2012) p. 233-264).

Pigeat, Anaëlle. “Jérémie Bennequin, effacements“, Art Press, No. 432, April 2016, pp. 66-67. Accessed 10 April 2020.

Books On Books Collection – Raffaella della Olga

LINE UP (2020)

LINE UP (2020)
Raffaella della Olga
Cloth on board with spiral binding of 28 card folios. H270 x W290 mm (closed). Edition of twenty-six, of which this is #8. Acquired from Three Star Books, 4 November 2020. Photo: Books On Books Collection, displayed with the artist’s permission.

Formerly a lawyer, Raffaella della Olga turned from the manipulation of legal text to the artistry of the letter and its “total expansion” — the book — as well as its manifestation in light and textiles. Her chief tool of art is a set of customized typewriters. Most of her works are unique pieces, each entitled with the emblematic letter T followed by the ordinal number of its creation — up to T28 as of this writing.

T28 Alphabet (2019/2020)
Raffaella dell Olga
Typewritten on paper and silk paper with carbon paper 485 x 435 mm. Image:
© Raffaella della Olga and reproduced with the artist’s permission.

The limited edition of LINE UP offered an unusual opportunity to add to the Books On Books collection a work that resonates with its subset of abecedaries and one by an artist who shares a deep interest in another theme in the collection: Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard. Since 2009, she has created bookworks that reveal an artist’s and careful reader’s appreciation of the poem.

Title page and colophon from LINE UP. Photos: Books On Books Collection, displayed with the artist’s permission.

LINE UP is very much a collaborative work between Raffaella della Olga and Three Star Books, founded in 2007 by Christophe Boutin and Mélanie Scarciglia with Cornelia Lauf (2007-2015). The edition consists of twenty-six spiral-bound copies, each with a unique cover produced by rubbings on canvas and differently colored. The title page and colophon take up two of the card folios in the volume, which leaves twenty-six for the printed content. Blocks of vertical blue lines turn the pages into letters based on the Epps-Evans alphabet, designed in the 1960s with only horizontal and vertical strokes in an attempt at machine readability.

Alphabet (1970)
Timothy Epps and Dr. Christopher Evans
Hilversum: de Jong & Co., 1970. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Discerning the letters in LINE UP feels sometimes like squinting one’s way through an optical illusion. The eye is bewitched by a color-shifting, almost stroboscopic effect created by four squares of embossed lines printed from the reverse side, always in the same position. Della Olga credits Christophe Boutin (Three Star Press) with introducing this effect.

The letters “a”, “b” and “c”.

Left: The four embossed squares seen from the verso. Right: The color shift between the embossed and flat squares.

The letter “k” at different angles of light.

The first of della Olga’s works reflecting the influence of Mallarmé’s poem was Un Coup De Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard – Constellation (2009), which was shown in the Gulbenkian’s “Pliure” exhibition in Paris in 2015. In a darkened room with an attendant turning the pages, the poem’s words, painted in phosphorescent powder, flickered into existence.

Un Coup De Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard – Constellation (2009)
Raffaella della Olga
Hand made work, white acrylic paint, phosphorescent powder, glue. H320 × 500 mm. Photos: © Raffaella della Olga, reproduced with permission of the artist.

A year later came this rendition: Jamais Le Hasard N’abolira Un Coup De Dés – Permutation (2010). Although the link goes to an online presentation, the work is analogue and unique. In correspondence (9 December 2020), Della Olga writes, “I took apart the book the Gallimard edition as a whole, without the paratext. I folded the double pages and deleted with white paint the part of the poem that appear.” A close look at the framed pages reveals the faint shadows of the painted-over text. On the wall, the permutation arises in the changeable order of hanging, which the online algorithm permits the viewer to perform.

Jamais Le Hasard N’abolira Un Coup De Dés – Permutation (2010)
Raffaella della Olga
Randomly generated computer graphic.

Her most recent homage to Mallarmé’s poem is Un Coup de Dés – Trame (2018). Like Constellation with its reference to and enacting of the poem’s constellation metaphor, and like Permutation with its reference to and enacting of chance, Trame well reflects della Olga’s penetration of the poem and transformation of it into artwork that stands strongly on its own and in comparison with other works of homage by Marcel Broodthaers, Michalis Pichler and Cerith Wyn Evans.

Un Coup de Dés – Trame (2018)
Raffaella della Olga
Unique. Typewritten on tracing paper with fabric and carbon paper, 320 × 500 mm. Image: © Raffaella della Olga, reproduced with permission of the artist.

The word trame is le mot juste in its application to the work and its referent. Its meanings — frame, woof, weft and weaving — shift across the work’s technique and material and evoke the poem’s typographical weaving as a framework with which to realize the “total expansion of the letter”.

Here’s hoping for further expansion into limited editions.

Further Reading

Total Expansion of the Letter, Trevor Stark (MIT Press, 2020): Review“, Books On Books, 19 October 2020.

Epps, Timothy, and Christopher Evans. Alphabet (Hilversum: de Jong & Co., 1970).

Owens, Sarah. “Electrifying the alphabet“, Eye, no. 62, vol. 16, 2006. Accessed 23 November 2020.

Spencer, Herbert, and Colin Forbes. New Alphabets A to Z (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1974). Source of the artist’s first encounter with the Epps-Evans alphabet. (Correspondence with Books On Books, 6 December 2020)

Books On Books Collection – Mitsou Ronat & Tibor Papp

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard (1980)

Poème: Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard par Stéphane Mallarmé (1980)
Édition Mise en Oeuvre et Présentée par Mitsou Ronat, Réalisée par Tibor Papp.
Two sets of folded & gathered folios, enclosed in a portfolio with four flaps; Portfolio: H380 x W285 mm; Folios: H380 x W285 mm; Poème, 24 pages, including the cover; “Le Genre …”, 28 pages, not including cover. Acquired from Latour Infernal, 28 May 2020. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Described as an “édition mise en oeuvre“, the Ronat/Papp 1980 publication of Un Coup de Dés is indeed as much a “production” as any theatrical or cinematic mise en scéne. Equally apropos or more so, the phrase calls to mind the French for page layout: mise-en-page. The layout of the work certainly calls attention to itself as much as to the page. While it represents an effort to reflect Mallarmé’s “true” intentions for the page layout of Un Coup de Dés, the Ronat/Papp production delivers the poem in a set of loose F&Gs (folded and gathered folios), paired with another set of F&Gs (artwork, poems and essays) and enclosed in a portfolio.

The first effort to follow Mallarmé’s intention as intimated in his corrected proofs of the abandoned Ambroise Vollard version was the 1914 NRF edition, which also called attention to itself with its oversized format, but it was sewn and bound into its paper cover as usual. Its lay-flat binding eased reading the lines of verse that run across the book’s gutter.

By unbinding that space that usually sinks into the gutter, Ronat and Papp retain the readability across the gutter but introduce an interesting instability. The unitary view of the double-page spread that Mallarmé intended falls prey to physical chance. Lines across pages can fall out of alignment as folios slip up or down. If the folios scatter, the reordering of the unnumbered pages relies on the guidance of the typography and memory. Oddly this forces a more hands-on engagement with the poem. No other edition intended for reading the poem feels as physical. The page and double-page spreads are felt.

Although also not bound, the order of the artwork, poems and essays in the right-hand set of F&Gs is traditionally fixed with pagination, as the front of its self-covering folio shows. More important is the cover title: “Le genre, que c’en devienne un …” (“the genre, that it becomes one …”). Those words begin the final sentence in the reproduction of Mallarmé’s reluctant note from the poem’s first publication. Cramped into the magazine Cosmopolis, the poem’s layout was still startling enough to the editors to require a preface from Mallarmé. Facetiously and seriously, his note explains how to read the poem. In varied ways, the F&Gs’ content also seriously and facetiously demonstrates how to read the poem. And starting and ending with Mallarmé’s words, the portfolio’s second half reflects the circularity of the poem it faces, which starts and ends with the words un coup de dés. An édition mise en oeuvre in deed.

So forget the debate over who was first to display the poem in the true form as Mallarmé intended. The second portfolio is proclaiming then proving by examples that Un Coup de Dés is a genre.

Mitsou Ronat‘s introduction sets the poem’s publishing history in context and explains this edition’s claim to reflect Mallarmé’s wishes for the poem’s presentation. In doing so, she puts forward her hypothesis that le Nombre (“the Number”) mysteriously posed in the poem is 12, the syllable count of each line in the French alexandrine couplet and ties this revelation to the page and double-page spread as units of meaning, culminating in the 24 pages of which the mise en oeuvre consists. Tibor Papp follows with his map of Déville (“Dice-town”). Overlapping inscriptions along the crisscrossing streets remind us of the sometimes overlooked humor in the Mallarmé industry. One street is labelled Saint-Mallarmé de la masturbation. Off one boulevard are the remparts des alexandrins (“battlements of the Alexandrines”), complete with a WC for passers-by. There is even a Métro stop named for Mallarmé’s Igitur, thematic predecessor to Un Coup de Dés. Another recalls the political cast of the times: premières allusions à la lutte des marginaux oubliées (“first allusions to the struggle of the forgotten marginalized”). But most important is the map as map, a poster, a sub-genre of the genre Un coup de Dés and forerunner to future works such as that by Aurélie Noury. In his essay near the end of the F&Gs, Papp asserts that Mallarmé was not preoccupied with print and typography for its haptic properties, rather he was simply seeking the tools appropriate to complete his text. This is Papp’s departure point for discussing the aims of Le Groupe d’atelier, which he founded with Paul Nagy and Philippe Dôme in 1972:

Pour l’écrivain, donc, d’aujourd’hui, l’attitude de mallarmé scrutant les caractères des affiches, travaillant ses épreuves par collage, déplaçant ses mots d’un millimétre, est une attitude parfaitement normale et logique, en même temps que son poème constitue un classique du genre.

Pour nous, l’écrivain assume son rôle jusqu’à la materialité de son texte.

“For today’s writer, then, the Mallarméan scrutiny of type display, working on his proofs by collage, moving his words by one millimeter, is perfectly normal and logical behavior, at the same time that his poem constitutes a classic of the genre.

For us, the writer’s role entails the materiality of the text.”

The remaining contributors traverse the ranges of the academic and artistic, the tongue-in-cheek and the serious, that Ronat and Papp establish. A more textual affair, “n’abolira Lazare” by Jacques Roubaud, a member of the OuLiPo movement, delivers an homage to Mallarmé replete with numerical and linguistic puns, appropriate to a professor of mathematics and literature, and a translator of Lewis Carroll. Bruno Montels‘ “Convoquer le peu” displays his signature combination of handwriting and typographic experimentation.

L’Entre croisement” by Jean Pierre Faye (a visual linguistic pun, “threshold” and “intersection”) reads like notes for an academic lecture but in a free-verse layout. The poet/essayist Claude Minière‘s “Le Risque Picaresque” foreshadows(?) his essay Un Coup de Dés (Tinbad, 2019), which proposes Pascal’s wager and Pensées as a predecessor to Mallarmé.

Peruvian poet and writer Rodolfo Hinostroza‘s “Le Dieu de la Page Blanche” (“The God of the Blank Page”) delivers a diagrammatic exploration of the placement of verses on the page in Un coup de Dés, reminiscent of but less abstruse than Ernest Fraenkel’s Rohrschach-like exposition. Philippe Dôme draws on his time as a French and Spanish teacher in London to put together pages of a multilingual study workbook for the reader of Un Coup de Dés. Clearly a lover of puns, he entitles his workbook with Spanish interrogatory marks around the face of a die, the 4 constructed with two colons.

Perhaps the most striking of the visual homages, Paul Nagy‘s contribution is a descendant of Un Coup de Dés by conscious or unconscious way of the earlier typographic and graphic gymnastics of Dada, Marinetti, Iliazd, Gomringer, the Brazilian Noigrandes movement and Fluxus.

In its unbound folios approach to the poem and juxtaposition of it with artistic interpretations of the poem, the Ronat/Papp production marked a pivot for future treatments of Un coup de Dés. Over the decades after it, three new editions — also aimed at reflecting the Master’s wishes — appeared as did dozens of inventive academic and artistic responses to Un Coup de Dés. The three explorations of the “true” edition (in French) are Michel Pierson‘s (2002), Françoise Morel‘s (2007) and Ypsilon Éditeur‘s (2008). Though the artworks paying homage since 1980 are too numerous to list for this entry, note that Books On Books is preparing a virtual 125th anniversary celebration for 2022 that will display images and links for all the homage paid since 1897 that it has uncovered — from Man Ray’s Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929) to Sylvain Moore’s Troisième Coup de Dés (2019).

Further Reading

Arnar, Anna Sigrídur. The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book and the Transformation of Print Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Fraenkel, Ernest. Les Dessins trans-conscients de Stéphane Mallarmé : à propos de la typographie de “Un Coup de dés” (Paris: Nizet, 1960).

Meillassoux, Quentin. The Number and the Siren (2012). Meissaloux argues the toss with Ronat over the identity of le Nombre.

Moulinier, Didier. “Pour une histoire de la poésie concrète“, La Poèsie Élèmentaire, 5 March 2011. Accessed 5 November 2020.

Stark, Trevor. Total Expansion of the Letter: Art and Language after Mallarmé (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).

Bookmarking Book Art – Adam Smyth

13 March 1911 (2019)

13 March 1911 (2019)
Adam Smyth
Perfect bound paperback. H175x W115 mm, 64 pages. Edition of 500. Acquired from Information as Material, 10 October 2020.

Although unremarkable in its production values, 13 March 1911 enters the collection as a brilliant composite with roots in OuLiPo, Grangerism and the collage technique, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations and The Arcades Project and Stéphane Mallarmé’s “The Book, Spiritual Instrument”. The date is the birth date of Smyth’s grandfather, and it is what confronts us in a photographic detail of a newspaper masthead.

From OuLiPo, Smyth takes the rule of constraint to guide his creation. The constraint is that the content presented must refer to events occurring on 13 March 1911 and in chronological order. Added to the constraint are citability of each source, which often takes Smyth to the Internet and Wayback Machine. Although focused on a single day in time, the writer, book and reader fly back and forth as if tethered together in a time machine composed of print and digital reference material.

Strictly with Grangerism, there should be a previously published book into and onto which the reader/actor inserts, pastes and attaches clippings relevant to the book in hand. Instead of a book in hand, Smyth has a date in hand to which the clippings accrue. And in keeping with this non-material target for Grangerizing, Smyth’s collage technique eschews visual and physical overlapping, rather it lies more in overlapping different types of sources of “data”: newspaper articles, classified ads, advertisements, Captain Scott’s journal, weather reports, obituaries, theater reviews and much more.

In a sort of reversal of Benjamin’s unpacking his library, Smyth packs snippets from history into this one book that turns on his grandfather’s birth date. It is not that Smyth can recreate him with all these snippets, or that the reader can ever know the man from those snippets — anymore than a reader of every single book in Benjamin’s library could recreate Benjamin or know him from doing so.

Like Benjamin in Arcades, Smyth is a collector of fragments by which he tries to make the past present. But Smyth’s time machine is also richly multi-dimensional — especially in its being digitally and print powered. What Smyth gives himself and the reader is an extended moment of recognizing the wide-flung welter around any of us at any time and the wryness, despair, amusement, inspiration and poignancy of trying to define, find and memorialize others (however close) or ourselves by that welter — however retrievable or citable the elements of it.

Finally, Smyth gives us one day’s proof of Mallarmé’s dictum: “everything in the world exists to end up in a book”. And so it ends up in the Books On Books Collection.

Further Browsing

Information as Material (Smyth’s 13 March 1911 is a publication with IAM, which offers works from authors such as Derek Beaulieu, Francesca Capone, Craig Dworkin, Andrew Dodds, Sharon Kivland, Simon Morris and Nick Thurston).

Books On Books Collection – Aurélie Noury

Perhaps there is some peculiar feature of “the book as intellectual instrument” that explains the phenomenon of book-artist-cum-impresari. In the last century, we had Ulises Carrión and Dick Higgins among others. In this century, we have Alicia Bailey, Sarah Bodman, Hubert Kretschmer, Antoine Lefebvre, Laura Russell to mention only a few. They flourish and with such variety. Some manifest as curators, others as gallerists, and others as publishers. Some transform that manifestation into a form of art itself. Aurélie Noury verges on doing this with the works under her imprint Éditions Lorem Ipsum.

El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha by Pierre Ménard (after Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Ménard, auteur du Quichotte” in Fictions) (2009)

El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha by Pierre Ménard (after Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Ménard, auteur du Quichotte” in Fictions) (2009)
Aurélie Noury
Perfect bound with folded cover, H170 × W120 mm, 38 pages. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Borges would be the first to congratulate Noury on her persistence, diligence and taste. Of course, he would be biased, but what else to call her recovery of these pages so briefly mentioned in his short story “Pierre Ménard, author of Quixote”, how else to describe their careful resetting in the precise order mentioned, and what other choice of fonts could be suggested than Garamond for the cover and Times New Roman for the text?

For any reader finishing the discourse on what the narrator calls Ménard’s unfinished oeuvre, it is a solace to turn to Noury’s reproduction and see exactly where Ménard left things hanging in the fragment of Chapter XXII that the narrator mentions so tantalizingly. It is a vicarious thrill to share with the narrator the strangeness of that fragment appearing after the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters!

Given the intrepidness of our artiste éditrice, it may seem churlish to mention the acute accent that appears in the last name of the latter-day author of Don Quixote. No such accent appears in the original Spanish of Borges’ story. Perhaps the Argentinian or his secretary had a momentary lapse. Then again, to give Noury the benefit of doubt and Borges the gift of future vision, the narrator’s Pierre Ménard (or Menard) could very well have been the ancestor of the eponymous founder of a micro vineyard in the Loire Valley who cannot seem to settle on one spelling or the other. It cannot be an accident that this vineyard recently produced a vintage named “Chaos” (2017), a wine that, one critic writes, “should not exist”.

Borges invented other authors besides Ménard and his bio-bibliographical narrator. Borges and his life-long friend Adolfo Bioy Casares came up with Honorio Bustos Domecq, a fictitious detective under whose name they wrote numerous short stories and through whom they introduced other fictitious authors — one such was Federico Juan Carlos Loomis. In “A List and Analysis of the Sundry Books of F. J. C. Loomis”, “Bugsy” Domecq chronicles the work of the legendary writer and critic. Loomis’s chief claim to fame is his collection of six books, whose contents consist solely of their titles.

Were it not for Aurélie Noury’s translating and publishing skills, the Francophone population would have to remain content with Domecq’s Spanish listing and analysis. (Saving, of course, the one title that Loomis wrote in French: Béret Basque.) Regardless of fluency in French or Spanish, the attentive reader will appreciate how the publisher’s sensitive translations capture the denotative, connotative, spiritual and cultural intent of Federico Juan Carlos Loomis’s singular texts.

Each of the French versions is tastefully set in Cochin on the cover and Times Roman in the text. The works’ restrained design (H190 x W130 mm, four pages, three covers in black & white, three with the addition of colored rule) complements their minimal contents.

Many book artists have paid homage to Borges (see Further Reading below). These seven works surely secure a place of honor and humor among them for Aurélie Noury.

Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (poster) (2008)

Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (poster) (2008)
Aurélie Noury
H100 x W700 mm. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Except for her Rubik’s Coup de Dés, Noury’s poster version of Mallarmé’s poem would be the thing for summarizing, critiquing, parodying and paying homage to le Maître‘s work. Why not collapse all of the spacing and text in its varied type sizes and styles into one double-page spread? But then, if the game is “the total expansion of the letter”, the dispersal of letters from keywords in the poem across the 54 spaces on a Rubik’s cube would be the thing. Unfortunately, at the moment, this particular thing does not reside in the Books On Books Collection, so the following photos (courtesy of the artist) stand as a collector’s reminder.

Noury’s inventive literary/artistic appropriation does not end with Borges and Mallarmé. Marcel Duchamp, Honoré de Balzac, John Irving and Louis Aragon also come in for varying treatments at her hands. Her choices for these reversals of ekphrasis — proceeding from an existing text to a newly created work of art, rather vice versa — are clever. But it is her combination of the techniques of appropriation, homage and parody and intermedial play with the various techniques of print and digital publications in a distinctive way for each target text that is ingenious.

No doubt there could be many more such works to come, but even the most ingenious of appropriators finds her time appropriated by other ventures. As directrice of the imprint Éditions Incertain Sens, she engages with the works acquired for Le Cabinet du livre d’artiste (CLA) at the University of Rennes 2 as well as with their documentation in the CLA’s newspaper Sans niveau ni mètre. These ventures have been apropos and obviously influential for Noury. Éditions Incertain Sens and the CLA were founded by Leszek Brogowski, who has written extensively on book artists such as Bernard Villers. The furniture of CLA was made by artist and writer Bruno di Rosa, who has appropriated and extended the works of Gustave Flaubert and Joachim du Bellay. The situation could be only more apropos if Éditions Incertain Sens had been founded by Mallarmé and Borges at some point in the future!

Further Reading

A Maze of Books for the Cultural Olympiad“, Bookmarking Book Art, 15 August 2012. For a sculptural homage to Borges.

Sean Kernan“, Books On Books Collection, 23 February 2013. For a photographic homage to Borges.

Barbara Tetenbaum”, Bookmarking Book Art, 26 June 2013. For more on reverse-ekphrasis.

Jacqueline Rush Lee”, Books On Books Collection, 8 October 2019. For more on reverse-ekphrasis.

Peter Malutzki“, Books On Books Collection, 11 November 2019. For an homage to Borges’ Encyclopedia of Tlön from the short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”.

Hanna Piotrowska (Dyrcz)“, Books On Books Collection, 13 December 2019. For an “earthy” homage to Borges.

Michalis Pichler”, Books On Books Collection, 19 August 2020. For a prolific hommageur of Mallarmé.

Antoine Lefebvre”, Books On Books Collection, 28 September 2020. For another artiste éditeur.

Gilbert, Annette (ed.). Publishing as Artistic Practice (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016).

Books On Books Collection – David Dernie & Olivia Laing

Shipwreck (2016)

David Dernie and Olivia Laing

Perfect bound softcover. H256 x W210 mm, 48 unnumbered pages. Edition of 100, of which this is #88 and signed. Acquired from the artist, 27 August 2020.

Shipwreck, a collaboration between artist/architect David Dernie and writer Olivia Lang, first appeared as an installation at the Cambridge School of Art’s Ruskin Gallery (3-19 November 2016). There are three works one might consider here: 1) the installation as event and environment, 2) its accompanying book presenting two parallel narratives, one composed of Laing’s text and the other of images of Dernie’s collages displayed at the exhibition and 3) Dernie’s essay juxtaposing those images with pages from Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard.

In his extensively illustrated textbook Exhibition Design, Dernie asserts that exhibition-making is an art in itself — “synonymous with image-making, communication, and the creation of a powerful experience”. Like the “book of the movie”, the exhibition catalogue rarely rises to that powerful experience. More rarely still does it surpass the exhibition. Unlike movies that can be purchased or rented, exhibitions are time-limited experiences. Even if revisited multiple times, an exhibition will close, move on and be replaced by another. The catalogue or online website may be the only media that document an exhibition. Attendees and non-attendees will experience them differently, and without that documentation, the exhibition as a work of art belongs only to the memories of its attendees and organizers.

Shipwreck is not a catalogue of the exhibition. More like an artist’s book, it juxtaposes a literary narrative with a set of prints. There’s no indication that the text was performed in the exhibition hall — live or recorded. If it was, then the attendees may have the memories to recall to make Shipwreck a satisfactory reminder of the event. Whether attendees and non-attendees find Shipwreck “the book” satisfactory as a standalone work is problematic given the third work to consider.

In his essay in Buildings, Dernie describes the collages as

Working in the tradition of the collage novel, and with original engravings from the popular French newspaper Le Grande Illustré (1904), [they] work with the thematic structure and spatiality of Stéphane Mallarmé’s revolutionary poem Un Coup de Dés written a few years earlier. (P. 324)

Like the poem, the collages are heterogeneous and their protagonists are “found”, both in terms of their scale and detail, in the dramatized newspaper of the period. The engravings are a snapshot of the terrible uncertainties, reported disasters and social unrest that colored Parisian life at the time. The re-invented figures, scenes and architectural settings are offered as spatial analogues to the poetic passages, exploring the non-perspectival space of the text, its content and poetic imagery as much as its solipsism and incoherence. (Pp. 330-31)

Drawing his collage material from Le Grande Illustré and analogizing the collage to Mallarmé’s imagery and use of the page’s non-perspectival space, Dernie replays in an original way what the Cubists, Futurists and Dada-ists learned from Un Coup de Dés and Mallarmé. In Total Expansion of the Letter (2020), Trevor Stark has laid out clearly how the collages of Picasso and Braque traced their technique back to Mallarmé. As for what they incorporated from the newspapers, however, the avant-gardists turned to the text of headlines and articles rather than illustrations. Dernie’s result is more reminiscent of Max Ernst’s surrealist novels than the Cubist collages of 1912.

Photos: Books on Books Collection.

The collages are clearly not simple illustrations of Mallarmé’s poem, but as Dernie points out, they work with the poem. Only in Dernie’s essay, however, can the pairings with pages from Un Coup de Dés be found and enjoyed. The eye moves from collage image to the shape of the text, from the verse and its images back to the collage, and back again.

From “Elevating Mallarmé’s Shipwreck”, pp. 334 and 337. Reproduced with permission of the author.

FromElevating Mallarmé’s Shipwreck“, pp. 331-32. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Were it not for the limited edition state of Shipwreck, the reader/viewer might be tempted to obtain a spare copy of Un Coup de Dés from the publisher Gallimard, “grangerize” it with Dernies’ collages and gaze on it at leisure.

Further Reading

Dernie, David. “Elevating Mallarmé’s Shipwreck”, Buildings, 3, 2013, pp. 324-340.

Dernie, David. Exhibition Design (London: Laurence King, 2007).

Stark, Trevor. Total expansion of the letter : Avant-Garde art and language after Mallarmé (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).

Books On Books Collection – Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark

A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance/Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (2015)

A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance (2015)
Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark
Hardback, H280 x W192 mm, 96 pages, illustrations.

Jeff Clark has designed this book for a dramatic entrance: eleven double-page spreads presenting in large type the English title (interrupted with a full-bleed double-page spread of random-light burst-mode photographs of black-and-white laserprints) followed by Mallarmé’s name in equally large type. The words in all caps Helvetica type bounce across the pages like dice, or rise and fall like waves.

Three more double-page spreads of an ominously darkening sea display the translator’s and designer’s names and the copyright page printed in reverse.

And then the poem begins. Both the English and French versions of the preface and poem occur without interruption by images (as Mallarmé would have wished) and in the layout implied by Mallarmé’s mark up of proofs before his death. Their relatively plain sailing, contrasted with the book’s dramatic opening, actually draws attention to the disruptive and groundbreaking nature of the poem’s intended layout and variations in typography.

The dramatic opening of double-page spreads returns at the end of the English version. Four spreads of undulating photographs of the seabed separate it from the French version. The spreads begin with a blow-up shot of seaweed or coracle and encrusted wreckage, then back off to a slightly longer shot in the next two spreads and return to a blow-up in the fourth spread. Although these are stills, their manipulation over the pages conveys a sense of underwater movement.

Four more double-page spreads conclude the book with photographs so blown-up and darkening that they leave the reader/viewer wondering if the phosphorescent underwater world has metamorphosed into a constellation.

The design work is carefully considered and meaningful. In choice of type, the English version’s sans serif type, Helvetica, contrasts with and complements the French version’s serif type, Didot, Mallarmé’s preferred font. Although in the Helvetica family the roman font does not contrast with its italic font as much as those fonts contrast in the Didot family, the Helvetica “places” Bononno’s and Clark’s work as a contemporary translation that complements its original.

The handling of the images is deeply subtle — not merely in their thematic affinity with the imagery and thrust of the poem, but also in their technique. They are random-light, burst-mode photographs of laser-printed photographs, a meta-technique that echoes the poem’s metaphysical struggle with meaning’s and thought’s being at a chance-driven remove from language. In commenting on Raffaella della Olga‘s phosphorescent light installation of the poem, the critic Raimundas Malašauskas makes a comment that is also apropos of these photographic images and technique:

Conversations about light often end up in conversations about time because light is far from ageless. Two reasons compliment [sic] each other: first, the emission of photons starts at one point in time and finishes at another one. Second, the scope of light brings an unforeseen scale of time if one has chosen to read this evocation under the light of stars. Just imagine it (when hopefully no one sees you.)

Malašauskas’ comments should be read in full to appreciate how important the theme of temporal perspective is for della Olga’s work. In his poem, Mallarmé evokes a temporal perspective through numerous images, not least of which is the constellation, and links that perspective to chance and the space (gap or abyss) between word (mark or utterance) and meaning. Likewise, in the privacy of this book, the chance-driven burst-mode images of images shift perspective from surface to depth to the microscopic — and out to the stars — placing the viewer in that solitary place where “no one sees you” to imagine macro- and micro-scopic vastness and relate them to this poem that proclaims across its last two double-page spreads:

NOTHING

WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE

BUT THE PLACE

EXCEPT

PERHAPS

A CONSTELLATION

Further Reading


Glazier, Jeremy. “Un Coup d’idées: A New Translation of Mallarmé’s ‘A Roll of the Dice’“, Los Angeles Review of Books, 1 June 2015.

Malašauskas, Raimundas. “Coup de dés“, Raffaella della Olga website, 2010. Accessed 15 April 2020.

N.A. “Translators Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno on Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘A Roll of the Dice’“, Poetry Society of America, N.D. Accessed 20 October 2020.

Ross, Alex. “Encrypted: Translators confront the enigma of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry“, The New Yorker, 4 April 2016.

Stark, Trevor. Total Expansion of the Letter (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020). Reviewed here. For a clear exploration of Mallarmé’s themes of chance, temporal perspective, thought and language.

“Total Expansion of the Letter”, Trevor Stark (MIT Press, 2020): Review

The 125th anniversary of the publication of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897) approaches, and Trevor Stark’s book is a welcome harbinger. Its title comes from Mallarmé’s essay/poem “The Book, Intellectual Instrument”:

The book, total expansion of the letter, should derive from it directly a spacious mobility, and by correspondences institute a play of elements that confirms the fiction (p. 6).

Often with Mallarmé, context is all (not to mention translation in the face of elliptical syntax!) — context is wrapped in self-enshrouded context. His seemingly cryptic sentence above becomes clearer only when the precedent to the word “it” (elle) is understood as la composition typographique from the essay/poem’s preceding paragraph, extolling the alphabet, language and typography.

Un miracle prime ce bienfait, au sens haut ou les mots, originellement, se réduisent à l’emploi, doué d’infinité jusqu’à sacrer une langue, des quelque vingt lettres — leur devenir, tout y rentre pour tantôt sourdre, principe — approchant d’un rite la composition typographique. (my emphasis)

So, the sentence is a proscription for what “the book” should get from typographic composition. Metaphorically (fictionally), the book is a total expansion of the typeset letter, or mark. As such, it should derive from the “near rite of typographic composition” a spaciousness and mobility and a play among elements that confirms the metaphor that it is a “total expansion of the letter”. Still a bit cryptic, but after all, this is what Mallarmé calls a “critical poem”, and the sentence is hardly more cryptic than the opening pronouncement: “everything in the world exists to end up in a book”.

It is a good choice of title for Stark’s endeavor. “Total expansion of the letter” juggles Mallarmé’s “heroic” vision for the book with the material world of metal type, idea with ink, the sacred with the profane. In painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater and film, the avant-gardists certainly brought together intellectuality and physicality forcefully. Stark shows that, in doing so, they also consciously and unconsciously raided Mallarmé’s open larder of skepticism about language and communication. The letter (or any mark of signifying, for that matter), scraps of newspaper, musical scores, dance notation, dresses and costumes (or lack thereof), wanted posters, financial bonds, and much more became ready objects for avant-garde art but only on the condition of their “becoming dysfunctional and incommunicative” (p. 7). Stark wants to know why.

Total Expansion of the Letter : Avant-Garde Art and Language after Mallarmé
Trevor Stark
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020)

Mallarmé’s skepticism about language and communication is Stark’s touchstone throughout: that language has an “ineradicable degree of chance built into” it; that there is inherently a suspension — a temporal gap, blank, void, lacuna, an “unfinished” state — between the sign’s expressed materiality and its meaning; and that, therefore, every act of communication as a historical and aesthetic phenomenon is like an anonymous, “impersonified” throw of the dice, “tossed into eternal circumstances’” (p.29). Applying that touchstone, he crosses the borders insightfully time and again “between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between dance, music, and letters, and between art history, the philosophy of language, politics, and poetics” (p. 30). Never reductive, he explores the continuities and variations between Mallarmé’s achievements and those of Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, F.T. Marinetti, Marcel Duchamp, the Laban school of dance and others of the avant-garde. As he offers a reciprocal interpretation of Mallarmé and of avant-garde art, individual poems, paintings, collages, performances of dance and theater yield new clarities and sharpened expression of received assessments.

Consider Stark’s comparative reading/viewing of Mallarmé’s “Sonnet en X” (1887) and Picasso’s The Dressing Table (1910). Across eight pages of text and photographs of art, Stark helps the reader to follow Mallarmé’s “quest for a word that literally means nothing, ptyx, a word produced by the frolic of language”, a signifier that “attains a materiality and an opacity, allowing the poem to display a linguistic Void, to raise it from the latent to the patent.” The materiality to which Stark draws our attention is twofold: the bright rhymes (-yx, -ix, -ixe) that almost single-handedly drive the invention of the word ptyx and the mirror on the credenza in the poem that captures the empty room, its window and the constellation Ursa Major showing through it. Across the same pages, Stark conducts the viewer through Picasso’s painting — again a mirror, the surface of a dressing table, the drawer from which a key protrudes, a drawer handle, a glass with the long handle of a toothbrush and its bristles poking out, but all scattered into planes of reflection and refraction, their shapes “mutually implicated to the point of structural ambiguity”. Then, he draws them together: “In Mallarmé and Picasso, representation destroyed the object in order to proclaim its own mute materiality and, thereby, regain continuity with the world by becoming simply one more thing within it”(pp. 101-108).

In pursuing these reciprocal readings of Mallarmé and his avant-garde descendants, Stark keeps a bright light on the “between” — between an object and its reflection, between a word’s or sound’s utterance and its meaning, the blanks between words, the blanks between brushstrokes or those between them and the boundary of the painting, between the cosmic and domestic, between one media and another when brought together in a work, between the individualism of subjective imagination and impersonal modes of production, between author/artist and word/image and reader/viewer. His term for these spaces is intermedial. In her endorsement of Stark’s book, Julia Robinson (New York University) calls his neologism “luminous”. The term refers to “the zone of indeterminacy between mediums, social practices, and temporalities” into which Mallarmé found himself outwardly propelled even as he inwardly sought “absolute language”.

Looking back on the avant-gardists and his own contemporaries, Dick Higgins — the late twentieth century language-, book-, and publishing-artist — rejuvenated Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s term intermediation, a neologism similar and related to intermedial. It is not the same thing as intermediality or mixed media. As Higgins expressed it, “Many fine works are being done in mixed media: paintings which incorporate poems within their visual fields, for instance. But one knows which is which. In intermedia, on the other hand, the visual element (painting) is fused conceptually with the words” (p. 52). It can be argued that works of intermedia are one way in which artists address intermediality — that zone of indeterminacy.

The argument is ultimately a phenomenological one, a perspective that Stark embraces. When he applies the ideas of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Theodor Adorno, Maurice Blanchot and others to Mallarmé’s poems and the artistic expressions of his “descendants”, both the philosophers and the artists become more accessible. Consider this passage summarizing Maurice Blanchot’s account of the history and function of language and its four stages:

The first was that of an Adamic or nomenclaturist model of language, which conceived words as names for the objects of the world. The second, dominant from Plato to Descartes, was the idealist model in which language constituted the link between sensible reality and the eternal realm of the Idea, and thus the guarantee of our ‘entrance into the intelligible world.’ [fn 223] Third, the ‘expressionist model’ of Hegel and Leibniz considered language itself the embodiment of what is sayable, thinkable, and possible at any given historical juncture, serving, therefore, as the medium of the progress of Spirit. Finally, illustrated with a quote from Valèry, the fourth stage was the ‘dialectical function of discourse,’ in which language regained an ‘essential power of constestation’ in the negativity of modern literature:

‘Literature seeks to revoke from language the properties that give linguistic signification, that make language appear as an affirmation of universality and intelligibility. But it doesn’t arrive at this goal (if it does arrive at this goal) by destroying language or through contempt of its rules. It wants to render language to what it believes to be its veritable destiny, which is to communicate silence through words and to express liberty through rules, which is to say to evoke language itself as destroyed by the circumstances that make it what it is.’ [fn 224] (pp. 110-11)

Clearly that passage links back to the touchstone of Mallarmé’s skepticism about language and communication. The strength of the touchstone is that it can also be fruitfully applied to the numerous works of homage to Mallarmé from contemporary book artists such as Jérémie Bennequin, Michael Maranda, Michalis Pichler, Eric Zboya and many others. Likewise it can used to shed light on the “material text” approach to understanding book art. A case in point is the first issue of Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History, a work of book art in its own right.

Consider the hole drilled through the center of the journal. Does it not echo Stark’s reminder of Braque’s citing Mallarmé’s utterance: “‘The point of departure is the void'” (p. 88)? Consider the journal’s spatial challenge to the act of reading (a dos-à-dos binding, a text block that rotates around that hole). Does that not echo this passage from Total Expansion of the Letter?

But what remains after the ‘suspension’ of the represented object and the objectification of the means of representation? For Mallarmé, the ‘residuum’ was the act of reading itself, conceived not as a process of cognitive reconstruction, but instead as a gamble on the very possibility of forging meaning out of opacity and contingency of linguistic matter. As Mallarmé wrote in ‘The Mystery of Letters’

‘To read —

That practice —

To lean, according to the page, on the blank, whose innocence inaugurates it, forgetting even the title that would speak too loud: and when, in a hinge [brisure], the most minor and disseminated, chance is conquered word by word, unfailingly the blank returns, gratuitous earlier but certain now, concluding that there is nothing beyond it [rien au-delà] and authenticating the silence –‘” (pp. 108-109).

Not since Anna Sigrídur Arnar’s The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book and the Transformation of Print Culture (2011) has there been as useful a tool for appreciating Mallarmé, art and artist’s books as Trevor Stark’s Total Expansion of the Letter. On the eve of the 125th anniversary of Un Coup de Dés, it will be interesting to see whether Stark and others extend his work to art and book art after the avant-garde.

Further Reading

Arnar, Anna Sigrídur. The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book and the Transformation of Print Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Higgins, Dick, and Hannah Higgins. “Intermedia“, republished in Leonardo, Volume 34, Number 1, February 2001, pp. 49-54.

McCombie, Elizabeth. Mallarmé and Debussy: Unheard Music, Unseen Text (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). It would have been interesting to see how Stark would relate his exploration with McCombie’s exploration of Mallarmé’s views on poetry and music.

Willette, Jeanne. “Cubism As Applied Design: Sonia Terk-Delaunay“, Art History Unstuffed, 16 August 2019. Although Robert and Sonia Delaunay are briefly mentioned in the third chapter (p. 248), it would have been interesting to see how Stark would use his touchstone to explicate the first “simultaneous poem”: La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay.

The Yale University Press offset facsimile. Image courtesy of Accordion Publications

Books On Books Collection – “Inscription: the Journal of Material Text”

I want the physicality of the book to create a physical message through the hands and the eyes that makes the reader more susceptible to the text.

Claire Van Vliet, “Thoughts on Bookmaking“, Poets House, 10 October 2019.  

Inscription: the Journal of Material TextTheory, Practice, History (2020)

Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History
Edited by Gill Partington, Adam Smyth and Simon Morris
Dos-à-dos (flipped), perfect bound softcover, H314 x W314 mm, 132 pages (including the end pages left intentionally blank); fold-out double-sided print of Jérémie Bennequin’s erasure of Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom”, H940 x W940 mm; saddle-stitched chapbook of Craig Dworkin’s “Clock”, held in a mock 45 RPM record sleeve, H180 x W180 mm; vinyl LP recording of Sean Ashton’s novel Living in a Land, H314 x W314 mm; Acquired from Information as Material, 10 October 2020.

In its design, typography, format and media components, the first issue of Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History embodies its domain. So much so that this metaphorical box of artifacts stands as a contribution to the study of material texts as much as any of the journal’s inaugural articles.

Jérémie Bennequin’s double-sided, bilingual print of his erasure of Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom” recalls the palimpsest — a longstanding topic of material text study. Also, by standing in for Poe’s swirling maelstrom, the print’s image of spiralling erasure raises the domain’s recurrent theme of text-and-image interaction as well as that of the self-reflexiveness of such art. Using the book or text as physical material with which to create a work is central to book art as is the self-referencing that arises.

Bennequin’s choice of text also alludes to his other work. The short story’s themes of abyss, shipwreck and nothingness occur prominently in Poe-loving Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard, the 19th century poem that made us modern and launched (is still launching) scores of artists’ books paying material and conceptual homage. Bennequin is one of those artists.†

The print’s spiral erasure on a background of text serves as one of several voices in this journal issue’s intermedial†† harmony (or cacophony). The spiral reappears in Craig Dworkin’s meditation that scales up a pocket watch’s clock spring to the size of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1980). Dworkin finds the spiral in the fossil of a Holocene fish that swam over the bed that became the jetty. He “materializes” the watch’s minutes against the geological and evolutionary time frames of the formation of the Great Salt Lake and the fossil. On the back cover of the chapbook, its entire text is repeated in a spiral of text blocks. The chapbook slips back into its 45 RPM-size sleeve to echo the spiralling inscription of sound in vinyl grooves that actually occurs on the LP recording of Sean Ashton’s novel Living in a Land.

After Bennequin’s print, Dworkin’s meditation and Ashton’s LP, the journal itself appears, sporting the spiral as a logo on its trompe l’oeil cover. Not only drawn from Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, the logo draws from the stage costumes of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, which recur throughout the journal’s pages reminding us of drama as another medium in which the materiality of the text matters. In its own physical manifestation, the journal wears the materiality of the text on its sleeve and in its pages. The pages themselves spiral around a hole drilled through the center of the issue, echoing the sculptural extremity of inscribing, the book art technique of excising and the concept of nothingness central to many artists of inscription such as Robert Barry and Carl Andre, as this exchange shows:

RB: There is something about void and emptiness which I am personally very concerned with. I guess I can’t get it out of my system. Just emptiness. Nothing seems to me the most potent thing in the world.

CA: I would say a thing is a hole in a thing it is not. — Arts Magazine 47 (1972): 46

On its two page 2’s (a result of the dos-à-dos or back to back binding), Incription offers its own Magrittean take on holes:

In dos-à-dos binding, two codices are bound back to back in a Z form. So usually there are two fore-edges, two spines, and both codices have the same vertical orientation.

Example of traditional dos-à-dos binding: Odd Volumes: Book Art from the Allan Chasanoff Collection (2014). Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Inscription is bound dos-à-dos, but with only one fore-edge and one spine. Materially emphasizing the theme of inward spiralling, Inscription‘s two halves are upside down to one another. Their vertical orientations differ as can be seen in the following photo of the two front covers splayed away from the spine. The cover designer has obviously joined the fun by creating two fore-edges with the trompe l’oeil and “two” spines, one downward reading in the English style and, when flipped, one upward reading in the European style. Of course, therefore, there are two Tables of Content in opposite orders and two editorial prefaces, of which “one is considerably better: this is deliberate”. (Tongue-in-cheek humor seems to reside in the DNA of material text studies — and especially in book art.)

Two Tables of Content — naturally in reverse order for the dos-à-dos bound volume.

With the page layout spiralling from each end of the issue toward the spiral-set colophon placed in the center (usually part of the endmatter), we have spirals inscribed within spirals.

Left (or is it right?): the drilled hole centered on Ubu Roi‘s omphalic costume. Right (or is it left?): the spiral-set colophon.

Across the issue, the text block rotates like a vinyl record around the central hole.

By the time the colophon is reached, the reader/viewer’s head may be spinning, which could make it easier to read the colophon — wherein it is revealed that the book has been set in twenty different versions of Garamond type in a sequence such that the first letter of a line comes from the first version of Garamond, the second letter from the second version and so on, with the sequence starting anew with the next line. More spirals within spirals.

The materiality of this inaugural issue demonstrates how Inscription‘s focus “is not just on the meanings and uses of the codex book, but also the nature of writing surfaces (papery or otherwise), and the processes of mark-making in the widest possible sense”, as the editors put it. The care and creativity with which this first issue has been put together offer raw material with which to “take the study of material texts in new directions”. Mark-making by erasure, printing, juxtaposing, drilling, vinyl inscription, land erosion, evolution, land art, stage costumes, choice of type, page layout, binding, sleeving — all this even before we come to the articles themselves (see the photos of the Table of Contents above)!

For academics, book artists, printmakers, poets, and artists – and every permutation of roles, subsidiary roles and sub-subs of role — Inscription is rich, exuberant, eye-opening and eye-twisting, and eminently collectible as a work of art in its own right. Which is why it is in the Books On Books Collection.

† For Bennequin’s homage to Un Coup de Dés, see “Jérémie Bennequin“, Books On Books Collection, 11 April 2020.

†† “Intermedial” is taken from Trevor Stark’s Total Expansion of the Letter: Avant-Garde Art and Language after Mallarmé (2020), p.9. It refers to “the zone of indeterminacy between mediums, social practices, and temporalities” into which Mallarmé’s question “Does something like Letters exist?” threw the poet and avant-gardists. The question is ultimately a phenomenological one, which the study of material text inherently addresses.

A similar, related neologism — “intermediation” — was adopted from Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1965 by the language-, book-, and publishing-artist Dick Higgins in “Intermedia“, republished in Leonardo, Volume 34, Number 1, February 2001, pp. 49-54. It is not the same thing as intermediality or mixed media. As Higgins expressed it, “Many fine works are being done in mixed media: paintings which incorporate poems within their visual fields, for instance. But one knows which is which. In intermedia, on the other hand, the visual element (painting) is fused conceptually with the words.”, p. 52. It can be argued that works of intermedia are one way in which artists address intermediality.

Books On Books Collection – “La Prose du Transsibérien Re-Creation” by Kitty Maryatt

It was 1913. Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” debuted. The Cubists, Constructivists, Suprematists, Futurists all bound onto the art scene, many of them showcased in the Armory Show in New York that year. The Nouvelle revue française (NRF) attempted the first book form of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard, which revived that 1897 typographic disruption of the page and prepared the ground for dozens of works of book art since. And Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk announced and published what they called le premier livre simultané. It was La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France.

From the Bodleian Library collection
Photos: Books On Books

From the National Art Library, Victoria & Albert
Photo: Books On Books

La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913)
Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk
Photo: Swann Gallery Auction “19th & 20th Century Prints & Drawings Featuring Property from the Ismar Littmann Family Collection“, 5 March 2019.

Like Mallarmé, Cendrars disrupts the page with multiple typefaces (thirty distinct ones in his case) and scattered placement of lines and stanzas. But La Prose presents an even more physical and structural disruption of the page and book than Un Coup de Dés. Unlike the latter, La Prose unfolds — twice — in an accordion format to over two metres in length or rather height since the text descends on the right and ends alongside the interlinked images of the Eiffel Tower and a Ferris wheel at the foot of the accordion. Cendrars and Delaunay had aimed to produce 150 copies of La Prose because, placed end to end, that would have equalled the Eiffel Tower’s height.

More than this monumental, sculptural, typographic and physical disruption of page and book, La Prose presents a temporal disruption. By le premier livre simultané, Cendrars meant a simultaneity of the verbal and visual — the way that text and image appear all at once — en un éclair. Early Bohemian that he was, Cendrars was co-opting a fair bit of artistic and literary theorising by the Cubists, Futurists and others. Most important and of the moment was his co-opting of Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s colour theory of simultanéisme. The “couleurs simultanées de Mme Delaunay-Terk” had also appeared in her 1913 robe simultanée and paintings. Building on a French scientist’s exposition on how perception of colours changes depending on the colours around them, the Delaunays claimed that rhythmic, musical and spatial synaesthetic elements were also at play. Sonia Delaunay asserted that the artwork produced for La Prose was not in response to reading the poem but hearing it from Cendrars. (Listen to it for yourself here.)

La robe simultanée/“The Simultaneous Dress” (1913)
as displayed in ”Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern, 15 April – 9 August 2015
Photo: © LondonArtFile.

In presenting the adolescent Cendrars travelling physically eastward on the Transsibérien, travelling mentally to Flanders-Basle-Timbuctoo-Auteuil-Longchamps-Paris-New York while still registering the landscape outside, seeing the maimed and wounded returning from the front of the Russo-Japanese war, conversing with a prostitute named after Joan of Arc, doubting himself as a poet, and so on until a sudden transposition back to Paris, the process poem juxtaposes the sacred and profane, past/present/future, stationary and dynamic, national and international in outlook and locale. In short, simultaneously. In a format that is bound and unbound, the poem mirrors the swirling, interacting shapes and colours beside and in which it moves — and vice versa.

However more disruptive of the page and book La Prose may have been, it did not inspire the profusion of direct re-interpretations (or appropriations) that Un Coup de Dés prompted from artists such as Jérémie Bennequin, Ellsworth Kelly, Man Ray, Didier Mutel, Michel Pichler, Eric Zboya and dozens of others.

Bennequin, Kelly, Man Ray, Mutel, Pichler and Zboya on the shoulders of Mallarmé.

Not until 2001 did a re-versioning of La Prose appear. Tony Baker and Alan Halsey published an English translation and codex re-formatting. Its black on white imagery is reminiscent of the Russian Futurists, the type is monochromatic, and the typefaces, fonts and weights vary but not as much as in La Prose.

Baker and Halsey note in their colophon:

So far as we’re aware no translation of the poem into English has ever been attempted to give a sense of Cendrars and Delaunay’s original conception, not the least reason for which may have been the difficulty until recently of seeing the first edition, even in reproduction. Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jeanne de France (Sheffield: West House Books, 2001)

A well-founded lament — at least for the book art community. Not until 2000 had there been a reduced-scale reproduction of La Prose. It appeared in Granary Books’  A Book of the Book by Jerome Rothenberg and Steven Clay across a four-page foldout in the embrace of Ron Padgett’s English translation. Only in 2008 was there a full-scale, full-colour offset facsimile, produced by Yale University Press with an appended translation. It is now out of print.

The Yale University Press offset facsimile. Image courtesy of Accordion Publications

With her work La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation (2019), Kitty Maryatt has changed all that. With this deuxième livre simultané, she has more than caught the echo of Cendrars/Delaunay’s original and its arrival. As scholar, artist and veritable impresaria, she has reinvigorated the book art/arts community with the legacy of La Prose

Her blogspot documents the research and production with rich details about sourcing the type, learning about stencil-cutting from Atelier Coloris (one of the few remaining businesses devoted to pochoir), determining the recipes for the ink colours, testing papers (Zerkall Crème, Biblio, and Rives HW), creating a census of the existing 1913/14 originals and their locations —  all that and more, including the use of bacon fat and a wine bottle filled with lead shot. She also organized a documentary by Rosylyn Rhee: “The Pochoir Re-creation of La Prose du Transsibérien”. It brings the importance of the original and this re-creation to life in the expressions and voices of prominent collectors, librarians and scholars, artists, rare book dealers and the project’s funders.

In addition, Maryatt has been either a contributor to, or the motivating force behind, several symposia and exhibitions such as “Paris 1913: Reinventing the Artist’s Book” (at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, 2018) and “Drop Dead Gorgeous”. The latter is a travelling exhibition resulting from invitations to twenty-four book artists and designer bookbinders to design and create bound copies of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation. For the San Francisco venue, Maryatt prepared a workshop on traditional French pochoir and provided text for the exhibition catalogue (available from the online store of the San Francisco Center for Books).

Announcement of “Drop Dead Gorgeous” exhibition at the San Francisco Center for Books, showing Dominic Riley’s fine binding of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation

Monique Lallier’s fine binding of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation 
Photos: Courtesy of Monique Lallier

The pinnacle of Maryatt’s efforts, of course, is the standard and deluxe editions of La Prose. Both editions consist of 4 pages, glued together to create the tall single page. For the standard edition, the page is folded into 21 sections and loosely placed in a painted vellum cover with a booklet describing the project and production. An acrylic slipcase houses the covered bundle.

The standard edition
Photo: Books On Books

Photo: Books On Books

Photos: Books On Books

For the deluxe edition, the single page is left double-wide, accordion-folded double-tall between aluminum covers and housed in a clamshell box. A separate case holds the painted vellum cover, colour cards, Sonia’s visual vocabulary, 27 progressives for page one, 5 pochoir plates with tracing paper and registration system, the booklet with introduction and colophon, and the list of 30 typefaces Cendrars used. A large clamshell box houses this separate case and the boxed book. The colour cards include the recipe for mixing the gouache, and Sonia’s visual vocabulary shows the numbered steps of operations. The progressives for page one show the steps for doing the pochoir stencils and handwork.

The deluxe edition
Photos: Courtesy of Kitty Maryatt

Any institution with a focus on book art or the graphic arts should seek out the standard edition of La Prose du Transsibérien Re-creation. Any institution with a focus on teaching and practice in those domains should seek out the deluxe edition. As indefatigable as Cendrars and as productive as Delaunay, Kitty Maryatt has provided the basis of master classes for generations. Now it is up to the book art community to respond as it has to Un Coup de Dés.

A shorter version of this essay appears in Parenthesis 39, Fall Issue, 2020.

Further Reading

Ashton, Doré. “On Blaise Cendrars. . . But I Digress.” Raritan 31, no. 2 (2011): 1-42,164. An entertaining extended anecdote sketching Cendrars and his milieu.

Gage, John. Colour and Meaning : Art, Science and Symbolism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999). Despite her works’ better quality and representation of simultanéisme, Gage focuses on Robert and mentions Sonia only in passing or footnotes. (Telling that the Tate chose Sonia not Robert for a retrospective in 2015.) Nevertheless, there are passages that place her work in context.

P.198: Chevreul’s “privileging of the harmony of complementaries was essentially in the context of ‘painting in flat tints’, a method developed largely in the decorative arts, but which was increasingly integrated into many branches of French painting in the second half of the nineteenth century …”.

P.254 “When, probably early in 1912, Delaunay wrote to Kandinsky outlining his theories, he had shifted to a rather different approach, claiming: ‘the laws I discovered … are based on researches into the transparency of colour, that can be compared with musical tones. This has obliged me to discover the movement of colours.’ …

P.256 [Delaunay’s] Essay on Light, which was composed in the summer of 1912, attributed the movement of colours less to transparency than to the qualities of hue: ‘Movement is given by the relationship of unequal measures, of contrasts of colours among themselves which constitute Reality. The reality has depth (we see as far as the stars), and thus becomes rhythmic Simultaneity.’”

P.257 “For Chevreul in 1839 such painting [in flat tints] had only a decorative, accessory function, but the Delaunays did not feel the distinction, and Sonia had recently been experimenting with flat colours in appliqué textiles and in bookbindings decorated with collage.”

Maryatt, Kitty. “A Bookmaker’s Analysis of Blaise Cendrar’s and Sonia Delaunay’s La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France”, The Quarterly Newsletter (Fall 2016), The Book Club of California. Online version available here.

Maryatt, Kitty. Interview with Steve Miller, Book Arts Podcasts, School of Library Information and Sciences, University of Alabama, 13 January 2006.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, 2nd ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003). Along with Shingler’s essay, this is the best explication of the work and its lineage with Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés.

Rothenberg, Jerome; Clay, Steven. A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections about the Book & Writing (New York City: Granary Books, 2000). Contains an excerpt from Perloff’s book above, Ron Padgett’s translation of La Prose and a four-page foldout showing a full-color photo-reduction of the 1913 original.

Shingler, Katherine. “Visual-verbal encounters in Cendrars and Delaunay‘s
La Prose du Transsibérien
“, e-France: an on-line Journal of French Studies, Vol. 3, 2012, pp. 1-28. Accessed 15 November 2019. Along with Perloff’s book, this is the best explication of the work and its lineage with Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés.

Sidoti, Antoine. Genèse et dossier d’une polémique: ‘La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France’. Blaise Cendrars – Sonia Delaunay (Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1987). Provides the compressed time line within which the poet and artist created the work.

Slevin, Tom. Visions of the Human: Art, World War I and the Modernist Subject (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015). Provides a lengthy discussion of la robe simultanée and La Prose.

Woodall, Stephen. “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France”, Insights from the de Young and Legion of Honor (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2020. A spectacular website presenting the original work in its context and its influences on subsequent book art. The work can be viewed panel by panel, and its overall structure is presented in an animation of its unfolding and refolding.